Baby Girl  |  Owen Macleod

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             I take a lot of drives with Baby. She didn’t fit between my wife and me in the front seat years ago. She’d run around in the flatbed, and my wife would nestle into my shoulder. My wife liked to take drives when she wanted to talk about things, or when she wanted to be quiet for a while. I’d put my arm around her, and we’d drive out of our town and into the next one over, where the houses are much nicer.
             “We can dream,” my wife used to say.
             Now it’s just Baby and me; she’s a German Shepherd and something else that made her fur tan. She still rides in the flatbed. We just cruise up and down the 200; straight shot through our town—roads spidering off every quarter mile. There’s lots of farms; when we had Baby in the flatbed all those years ago, my wife was nervous that the dog would jump out and chase the cows and goats that graze all the hills, because Baby always paced back and forth, putting her legs up on the side of the bed and leaning her head out into traffic. Now, Baby stays pretty still. She takes a few steps here and there to balance herself around turns, but she doesn’t move much. Just stares at the open fields that pass by on both sides. I like seeing the farms. Seeing all the growth and the day-to-day. Seeing cows get born, then get big, then have their own calves, then disappear. Makes me feel less alone. When we’re not driving, I’m in the study.
             My wife and I bought the house five years ago when she got a job at the elementary school. It is a simple ranch—single-story, white walls, laminate floors and counters. It looks just like all the other houses on the street, with one exception. The previous owner built what looked like a shed and nailed it on the side of the house. Walking up with the realtor, she explained that the previous owner used it as his cigar-smoking room.
             “Don’t you smoke cigars?” she said. “You look like you smoke cigars.” Once inside the house, we walked around and commented on all the rooms, until the realtor finally asked if we wanted to see the cigar-smoking room.
             “Of course,” my wife said. It was the only room I had any interest in seeing—we had seen other houses on the block, and they were all the same.
             The hallway leading to the room seemed to get darker as we got deeper, following the realtor. A thick smell worked the air in front of the door. The realtor pushed it open, and the smell intensified, projecting from the room. Hit us in a hot, clear fog as the door was opened. I liked it: wood, and somehow a little citrusy. Cigar smoke had enveloped this room for years. It was in every breath, and my wife cupped her mouth and nose in her hand.
             The floors, the walls, the desk, the bookcases—each a different grain and species—but the room was made entirely of wood. They were stained similarly, a dark brown with heavy gloss so the room shined, even in the absence of sunlight. The previous owner brought in wood from Northern California, Portland, all along the Pacific Northwest. There were no windows, but it seemed perfect. It was a place I could be alone whenever I wanted. I couldn’t have paid Annie to hang out in that room.
             “The owner is going to leave all the furniture,” the realtor said. When we moved in, the only change I made to the room was to add my dad’s rocking chair. It’s an oak masterpiece that he handcrafted and wrote-off to me in his will. I stained it a dark brown, and it fit beautifully. My wife changed the name; she insisted we call it “the study” because that sounded more important and useful than “the cigar room.”
             The room seems even darker now. When I make the walk down the hall, I picture windows looking out onto a garden, or a waterfall or something, but the walls always look that dark, midnight purple, and I don’t think natural light will fix it. The room still smells like cigars, even though I don’t smoke them, so Baby doesn’t like it. She wanders the house and yelps out for me while I sit in my dad’s rocking chair to read. Sometimes when she cries, echoing through the house, it sounds like my wife singing. Annie used to sing while she did laundry or dishes or stuff around the house. She had a beautiful voice and could hit a wide range of notes at just a talking-volume. After a second, it’s easy to tell that Baby’s whining for more food or for attention, so I yell back, “I’m here, Girl,” which keeps her settled for a few minutes.
             Sometimes, I like just to talk to Baby like she’s my wife. I’ve been asking her questions, hoping one day she’ll answer me. I’ll say something like, “What are we gonna do, Girl?” and she just stares up at me, tilting her head to the side and moving her tail back and forth. I was sitting in my dad’s chair when it first happened.


             The study was quiet. The only sound was the pages of a heavy book turning every few minutes under my fingers. But I heard a mumble through the walls of the house. My back stiffened, and I turned my head toward the door, letting my ears gather the sound. I knew it was probably Baby calling out for her bowl to be refilled, but it initially registered as my wife singing. I got up from the chair and stood there for a second, letting the seat hit the back of my legs a few times while I listened. The sound wasn’t anything I could grab onto.
             I’d been thinking for about a week that someone else was in the house. One night, I woke up to a conversation from downstairs. I didn’t know to whom my wife was speaking, but it was clearly her voice. The slight twang of Tennessee that her mother tried muddling in Michigan all those years ago. I hadn’t heard her in conversation in a long time, and it startled me. I got up from bed and ran to the stairs. But upon reaching the landing, opening to the living room, where I was sure the conversation was happening, I saw no one. The room was as dark as I’d left it before going to bed. There was no one in the house but me, and I told myself I had only dreamed the sounds.
             The study is tucked around the back corner of the house, pretty deaf to anything but loud noises. I thought maybe I hadn’t heard anything at all and sat back down. I keep my walls of books in the study, with a few of them strategically stacked on the desk. I keep the ones on my desk to entice comments from potential visitors. No one ever comes over, but if they do, I’d like them to think I’ve been reading something that carries a weight of importance in its title.
             I returned to the seat of my father’s rocking chair and tried rationalizing the sounds I was hearing. Baby was making the noises; that much was clear to me. What was somewhat unclear was why I registered the sounds as my wife singing. The only place that my wife’s voice speaks, that I know of, is after four dial tones, when the call goes to her answering machine. I haven’t canceled her cell phone—I call it all the time. A few times a week. Her voice, in the message, didn’t sound like her when she was alive. I’d call her to go to lunch and get her voicemail, and upon hearing the voice, I’d take the phone down and make sure I was calling the right person. But now, the message sounds exactly like her. There’s no one else it could be. It sounds like she’s talking directly at me, “Leave me a message, call ya back.”
             Maybe I miss her so much that it’s projecting her presence into my life. My wife is gone, but there’s a part of her that seems to still inhabit me. I wake up some mornings and can see the faintest depression on her pillow. Maybe I’m going crazy.
             I was tracing the grain in the desk with my finger from left to right, when I heard it again. Not a mumble this time, clearly I heard my wife singing. And it must have been louder than her usual talking-volume. It was so obvious, even in the study. I didn’t know what song. I often didn’t know what song she was singing.
             I got up from the chair and hurried into the hall. The kitchen was the first door I came to, and I crept up to it, my back sliding against the wall. I got to the white frame, letting my fingertips touch it, and quickly curled my head inside, eyes darting all over the room. Nothing was there that shouldn’t have been. The room still smelled like the frozen pizza I’d made an hour or so earlier. I stood in the doorway and listened again for the singing, which seemed to have stopped. I wanted to pinpoint the sound and approximate where it was in the house. I wasn’t sure whether I should call the police—it really did sound like my wife.
             Then, I heard it again. Clearer than before. It sounded like it was upstairs, and I ran as fast as I could without making any noise—kind of leaping through the house. The stairs that led to the second floor funneled the sound, and it was unmistakable. My wife was singing from our bedroom. The way she used to do when she folded clothes.
             I ran up the stairs; the clatter I was making didn’t matter to me then. The singing kept coming as I reached the landing, and it radiated from the bedroom at the end of the hall. The door—a flimsy, white press-wood—was half-open, and I pushed it so hard the handle stuck in the drywall. There was no one in the room, and though I could see everywhere for my wife to hide from where I was standing, hovering in the doorway, I looked around thoroughly like I’d missed her somewhere. There was nowhere for her to be. I looked up at the ceiling, turned around to check above the door. Annie wasn’t there, and neither was her voice anymore. I went around the other side of the bed, the only place I hadn’t looked, and was startled to see Baby, curled up in herself next to the bed. Still looking around the room, I called the dog out, patting my knees and putting on a sappy voice, “Come here, Baby Girl.” I ran my hands through my hair, knowing at once that I had heard my wife’s voice, and that there was no way for it to be heard.
             The dog let her head fold out of her stomach and looked at me. She looked at me like she couldn’t remember how she ended up in the space between the wall and the bed, like she thought I had put her there. I called for her again, clapping my hands this time, “Come here, Girl.”
             And then, not quite opening her mouth, but kind of curling her lips around the words, Baby said, “You come here,” in my wife’s voice.


             I didn’t know what to do. I took a few steps back and put a hand on my chest to feel for my heart. My periphery went black, and it completely outlined the tan-colored lump of dog on the floor. I don’t know what my body was doing during the moments that Baby lay in the darkness. My mind wouldn’t let me think about breathing, or temperature, or the tips of my fingers. I raced through all the possible reactions. I wanted to call the police again. Holy shit. But I couldn’t think of anything sane to tell the dispatcher. I couldn’t think of anything sane to tell myself. I couldn’t describe what I’d just seen. I wanted to get in the truck and find a hotel for the night. Then, she said it again.
             “Come here,” Baby’s head bobbing as my wife’s voice came out. I screamed—a quick, high-pitched burst that I caught with my hand as I slapped it over my mouth. I stepped back, wobbling. All I could say was a mess of Whats and Hows, as I stumbled over to the doorway.
             “What’s wrong with you, Honey?” the dog said, pushing herself up out of the spot between the wall and the bed. It suddenly became real. The darkness lifted, and I was back in my bedroom, the light coming through the window again. The world seemed brighter than it had been in a long time.
             “Annie?” I said, saying my wife’s name, but bending toward my dog and squinting my eyes.
             “What?” Baby said, but it was Annie who said it.
             The dog spoke Annie’s words as if my wife had never died; there was no recognition of physical form. Annie couldn’t tell that she was anything other than Annie. The words were from years ago, when Baby was just a baby. It was like our conversations had seeped into the dog over all that time, and now that the conversations in the house had run out, she was filling the air with what used to be there. Baby used to sit with Annie on the couch while my wife watched TV. With their heads nestled against each other, Annie would lift the flap of one of Baby’s ears and whisper things to her. I never knew what she was saying, just little secrets. I walked around the room, arms extended, trying to feel something, make sure I was still alive. I ripped a few of my arms hairs out. This was still the real world, as far as I could tell.
             I tried to accept the situation, and I asked Baby what she knew. What the fuck was going on? The questions puzzled her greatly. Baby stretched her front legs out so far that her belly touched the floor.
             “What do you mean, Stefan?” she said, standing up and hovering in place for a second. I became harshly aware that I was talking to my dog. I realized it so harshly that it frightened me. I stepped away from her. She came over and pressed herself against my legs. I was afraid even to touch her.
             It was more than that. She, the voice, couldn’t explain how the hell this all came to be. How did my dead wife’s voice now inhabit the mouth of my dog? Then, for a second, I felt like I was on a TV show. That had to be it. I rushed around the room, looking in the top corner of every wall for a camera or a microphone. Anything that would clue me in.
             I didn’t find anything in the room, so I ran out into the hall, expecting to find Assclown Kutchner, or whatever his name is. Baby ran after me. She liked to put her nose on the heel of anyone walking in front of her.
             “What’s for dinner?” Annie said. I turned around, looking at Baby with glaring eyes. We stood there for a few seconds, just staring at each other.
             “Talk again,” I said.
             “Talk, talk, talk,” Annie said from Baby’s mouth.
             “Oh my god,” I said, turning around and heading downstairs.


             People came in and out like they’d made up a schedule when it first happened, about two years ago. It made me sick after a while. All the food—Baby ate most of it. I would have rather stayed in bed those first months. Let Baby lick my feet sticking out of the covers. The food was nice; my house would have been overrun with pizza boxes without the constant meals that people brought over. Annie had a lot of friends.
             “What’s for dinner,” she said again, when we had both reached the bottom of the stairs.
             “Would you give me a minute?” I said, raising my voice. “Just … I’m sorry. Just hold on, though. I don’t know what to do.”
             “Just call Chinese or something.”
             I took one of the barstools at the island in the center of the kitchen, and Baby followed me. Once I was in the seat, and my feet were off the ground, she pressed her wet nose into my right heel. My head fell into my hands. I rubbed my palms in my eyes, scrubbing them, trying to wash away this dream. I pinched a few more arm hairs out. I took some deep breaths, my eyes still closed, the purple and yellow blotches painting my eyelids. I opened them, just staring forward, looking at nothing. I didn’t want to look down at Baby; I still felt her nose touching my foot every now and then.
             But when I finally looked down, she wasn’t there. I looked around from my seat and couldn’t see her anywhere. I wanted to call someone but didn’t know who. The realization came in a set of waves. Family I gradually weeded out over a few years, in favor of Annie. Friends I haven’t had since college, and I only had one or two by the time I graduated. Words were building in my head, no one to respond to them.
             I had to tell someone about my dog talking. I thought about writing my mother a letter because she doesn’t have a phone. I was going to hope she lived in the house where I last saw her. That beat-up ranch out in Texas that still had the home-wrap showing, even though the builders were finished. Maybe she has a phone number by now, and I just don’t know what it is. It crossed my mind to call Annie, but then I remembered the four buzzes, her voice at the end.
             I looked around and found Baby in the bedroom again. This time, lying on the bed, on Annie’s side, next to the window.
             “You okay now?” Annie asked, Baby turning her head from the window to look at me.
             “I just—I still don’t really know,” I said, sitting on the edge of the bed.
             “What’s to know?”
             “It’s just. Don’t you think this is weird?”
             “Think what’s weird, Stef? Why do you keep saying that?”
             Baby now swung her upper body in my direction, then brought her bottom half around. She crossed her hind paws at the ankles in front of herself, staying balanced, sitting upright and facing me. My dog. My wife, reincarnate.
             “Can we take a drive and talk about it?” Annie said, and I liked that idea.
             I got a coat, and Baby followed me out the front door. Instead of going to the flatbed, Baby went around to the passenger side, got up on her back legs, and started pawing the door handle. That’s when it seemed so clear. It was my wife. Annie. I didn’t know why, and didn’t really care. It was just something that happened. Maybe she would only be able to speak for a week or a few days. Or maybe it would be like having my wife back.
             What I really missed was talking to her. All those couch secrets Annie told Baby were ready to be heard. I was certainly ready to hear them. I really missed her voice.
             I ran around to the passenger side, and Annie leaped up into the seat with an enthusiasm that was noticably different than Baby’s. I shut the door and, walking around the back, took a deep breath, hoping her voice would still be there when I got in the truck.
             “Ready to go?” I said, turning the key.
             “Of course.”
             We passed a few farms and made a turn onto the 200. Annie slowly nestled her head in the crook of my neck, resting herself on my shoulder. The way she always did.
             We got to the next town, where the houses are much nicer than ours. There’s houses that look like castles, houses that look like beach mansions, houses that look like haunted houses because of their gothic aesthetic.
             “Wow, look at that one,” Annie said, lifting her arm in the direction of a sprawling Spanish villa with a wrapping cobblestone driveway. In the middle of the driveway, there was a fountain. A large fish with its back curled, spitting water at the sky. “That one’s amazing.”
             “We can dream,” I said.

♥ End ♥

Owen Macleod was born in Washington, D.C., and immediately moved to Alexandria, Virginia. In 2012, he won the 13th Paul Rice Poetry Broadside Contest, and the poem appears in the Spring 2013 issue of Archarios Literary Magazine. He has also been published in Tempo Magazine and The Folly Current. Owen currently resides in Conway, South Carolina.

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